Scientists and clinicians are pioneering the diagnosis and treatment of children's brain tumours

The University of Birmingham, England, is working with Birmingham Children's Hospital to use high-tech science to make a difference to children's lives.

Scientists and clinicians are pioneering the diagnosis and treatment of children's brain tumours using the most powerful and stable magnetic instruments in the world. For the first time, it is becoming possible to tell the type of tumour and predict its behaviour using magnetic resonance scans. Alongside advanced head scans, scientists are using superconducting magnets to analyse samples from children's tumours - improving diagnosis and treatment.

The University of Birmingham is home to the UK's first 900 MHz Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer, a national resource within the Henry Wellcome Building for Biomolecular NMR Spectroscopy. The spectrometers use powerful magnetic fields to allow researchers to look in minute detail at a sample, the 900MHz is 20 times stronger than hospital imaging magnets. The relationships between atoms and molecules can be examined to point to the types of effects drug treatments could have. This technology could lead to more efficient treatments on an individual basis.

Professor Michael Overduin is executive director of the Birmingham's national NMR facility and professor of structural biology at the University of Birmingham. He explains: "Using these powerful magnets we can image and diagnose the root causes of cancer and other diseases. They also help us understand basic biology, for example the mechanisms of proteins that make cells grow and divide. This benefits patients through diagnosis and importantly assists drug development - pharmaceutical companies will be carrying out research here alongside university and hospital scientists".

Dr Andrew Peet, a Department of Health Clinician Scientist, and his colleagues at Birmingham Children's Hospital have been collecting the new scans on children's tumours for two years. He explains "Overall, about 70 per cent of children with cancer are cured but despite this success, cancer is the most common cause of death in children after the first few years of life and improvements in diagnosis and treatment are urgently needed. We are developing new magnetic resonance scans to measure the levels of chemicals in tumours to help us diagnose them and tell us the best way to treat them. In future these scans may allow us to avoid surgery in some patients and improve treatment in others.

"At present, to interpret these new scans we need information on the chemistry of the tumours and this is obtained by putting tumour samples in the magnets in the Henry Wellcome Building. These magnets are far stronger than the ones which we can put the children in giving much better data. By combining these experiments with scans we can ensure that scientific discoveries benefit the patients with a minimum of delay."

This science could make a direct impact on the lives of families such as the Smyth family from Northfield, Birmingham. Tim Smyth, aged 12, had crippling headaches and an eye test showed swelling behind the brain, pointing to a tumour. A scan showed that a tumour was indeed present but surgery was needed to confirm the type was a germinoma. The location in the midline of the brain meant surgery was difficult and potentially dangerous. However finding out that it was a germonoma meant radiotherapy could be given as it is known that almost all germinomas are cured by this treatment. In Tim's case his tumour had disappeared 6 months later and his only remaining symptom is some double vision.

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